Finding Purpose in Life's Second Act

Social Entrepreneur Seeks To Empower an Aging Generation

Young Enough to Matter: Adoptive mother Jenny Bowen won the Purpose Prize, an award for innovators 60 and older. Her non-profit, Half the Sky, aims to improve China’s treatment of orphans.
civic ventures
Young Enough to Matter: Adoptive mother Jenny Bowen won the Purpose Prize, an award for innovators 60 and older. Her non-profit, Half the Sky, aims to improve China’s treatment of orphans.

By E.B. Solomont

Published November 04, 2011, issue of November 11, 2011.
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Life stages are artificial, argues Marc Freedman, the 53-year-old social entrepreneur dubbed “the voice of aging baby boomers” by The New York Times. “There was no adolescence before 1904,” Freedman points out before launching into an explanation of his nonprofit’s raison d’être: creating institutions and public policies geared toward boomers who may be past retirement age but are by no means elderly.

Freedman is CEO and founder of Civic Ventures, a think tank focused on baby boomers, work and social purpose. The nonprofit employs 20, including researchers and fellows, and has a budget this year of $5.3 million, not including pass-through grants.

Freedman founded the organization in 1998 to provide a home for another organization he created: Experience Corps, a national nonprofit service program for adults, 55 and older, who tutor and mentor public school children. Today the corps, which became part of the AARP in September, includes some 2,000 volunteers in 20 cities.

Freedman has helped to change perceptions about aging, those familiar with his work say. “He has raised the level of discourse about older Americans from one where an aging society is the problem, to one where an aging society offers potential and opportunity,” says Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and a past board member of Civic Ventures.

Indeed, Civic Ventures has grown to include a portfolio of programs, including Encore Careers, which helps boomers find meaningful work in the second half of life, and the Purpose Prize. Since 2006, Purpose has awarded millions in prize monies to social innovators 60 and older.

“We have a whole set of investments to help young people navigate their way into adulthood,” Freedman says, explaining the rationale behind his work. “I think we should provide opportunities for people when they hit this other juncture; to retool, find renewal, launch another chapter of their lives.”

I reached Freedman by phone in Berkeley, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Leslie Gray, and three young children, ages 6, 3 and 22 months. He’s taking a power walk. “It’s hard to shoehorn exercise in,” he says, wasting little time before delving into the contents of his latest book, “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife,” which came out in April.

“It’s really a book about life stages, and it’s an argument that the period that’s opening up between midlife and old age isn’t a kind of a revision of retirement or oxymoron between the young-old or working-retired,” he says. “It’s a stage with its own integrity and priorities and opportunities and challenges.”

The growing population of boomers fuels Freedman’s work. “You hear 60 is the new 30, and you see these senior discounts for 60 and above,” he says, pointing to mixed messages facing the group. “The flood of people entering that period of life is a new phenomenon.”

Indeed, much of Freedman’s work involves dispelling misconceptions about midlife. The Purpose Prize, for example, addresses the notion that social innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t the exclusive province of young people. “There’s this other great repository of new ideas and inventions in the social sector that’s coming from people on the other side of their midlife careers,” Freedman says.

Some of the prize-winners are well-known, such as Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, who was recognized in 2006 for fighting intolerance, conflict and terrorism through the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

But there are others, too, whose lesser-known names belie their good works.

Among the 2011 winners, for example, is Jenny Bowen, 66, of Berkeley, Calif., the adoptive mother of children from China who founded the nonprofit Half the Sky to improve the way China cares for orphaned children. To date, the organization has impacted 60,000 children and is partnering with Beijing officials to train more than 10,000 welfare institution workers.

Previously, Gary Maxworthy, a former food distributor, won a Purpose Prize in 2007 for creating Farm to Family, a program that brings non-market-standard — but fresh — produce to the poor. Dana Fryer, a New York lawyer, in 2003 launched Global Partnership for Afghanistan, a nonprofit that has helped 12,000 Afghan farmers plant more than 8 million trees.

Freedman says he gets about a thousand entries for the prize each year.

He says the Purpose Prize isn’t a Jewish award, but many winners are Jewish, including Bowen, Maxworthy and Fryer. Freedman offers little explanation for why that’s the case, other than citing Judaism’s emphasis on social justice.

Freedman’s Jewish upbringing, along with family role models, helped to shape a career focused on social service. “I grew up in one of those extremely Reform, German-Jewish congregations, where we didn’t do a lot of Hebrew or worship, but there was a strong social justice focus,” said the Philadelphia native, who holds an MBA from Yale University.

His father was a teacher who turned to volunteerism in his retirement. Freedman’s grandmother found a lifeline in a volunteer job she got through a senior program in northwest Philadelphia. “Through it, she developed a community of other, mostly older, women — many Jewish — who became a second family to her,” Freedman says. “I think that had a big impact on me, as well.”

Somewhat ironically, Freedman’s professional interest in the boomer generation grew out of his early work with young people growing up in poverty. As he looked at mentoring programs for children and teens, he saw a gaping hole in the tools available for transitions later in life.

“We have a lot of programs for the elderly, but — because this group that’s between the traditional retirement age and anything resembling old age hasn’t really been formally recognized — there’s this lag in the development of institutions and innovations to help people,” he says. “There should be new kinds of education for people at this stage… fellowships.”

These days, Freedman’s personal and professional lives often intersect. “I turned 53 this year, and it’s just so easy for me to remember when I was 33 or 23. It’s amazing how fast those decades go by,” he says. “It’s such a different situation than one would imagine. When my grandmother was 63, she was elderly. [Society] hasn’t caught up with what that means.”

At 53 years young, he’s got plenty of time to change that.

E.B. Solomont is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.

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